The caravans: Since 1974, processions of campers have journeyed over a narrow, paved road running the length--slightly longer than Italy--of the dry, spiny Lower California peninsula. Tourists are nothing new in Mexico, but until the highway was built, Baja California was more isolated from the rest of its country than Alaska is from the contiguous United States. Twenty-five years ago, recreational visitors were as rare as rainfall. Now, fledgling tourist developments account for more than a third of the state's income. With only 250,000 inhabitants, Baja California Sur is the least populated Mexican state--but it suddenly has the most international airports. Except for isolated pockets, unemployment is rare, a condition unimaginable nearly anywhere else in the country.
The reason, Mexicans agree, is coastlines and California. Barely 150 miles wide at its maximum girth, Baja California separates the warm Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez) from the colder Pacific. Between the two, an astonishing variety of aquatic organisms enraptures both commercial and sportfishermen. Most of the latter (and other related tourist species) arrive from nearby California--which is also Baja's major market for seafood.
Since the highway and airports appeared, the unblemished stillness of palm-thatch villages has been replaced by clattering armadas of cement trucks. One former fishing camp has more lumberyards than the entire state did a decade ago. A hundred resorts are blooming; families are pouring in from \o7 el interior\f7 for construction jobs for papa and chambermaid positions for mama, and Baja is still short-handed.
"Prosperity," muses curly-haired Santana Aramburo, with some amazement. He is working in the airport at the tip of the peninsula, where private and government tourism projects are locked in profitable combat. Aramburo came here from the state of Sonora, where he'd studied economics. Grateful to have employment, he still can't help noticing the exceptional circumstances that have brought it about.
Supine under a palmetto \o7 ramada\f7 just beyond the string of hotels at San Jose del Cabo, Aramburo observes that his Sunday drinking companions here were once shark fishermen. Now, they either take tourists out to catch marlin, or sell tuna and cabrilla to wholesalers who ship it to the United States. The nearby San Jose River once was lined with orchards and fields of corn, chiles and beans. But agriculture has largely been abandoned, and dense palms now grow where the crops once grew.
"Farmers' sons now are waiters in the restaurants. This state could probably grow enough to support itself, but even where there's still agriculture, it's mainly wheat, safflower--whatever is good for export."
A fisherman passes Aramburo a liter of beer; it's windy, and no tourists are going out today. "These were self-sufficient villages. Today, everything here is for the gringo--crops, fish, housing and tourism."
Aramburo's companions, who now make $30 a day plus tips working sportfishing boats, grin and offer a toast. "To the gringos!" Aramburo agrees. "If the United States got mad at Mexico over drugs or immigration or oil prices, a tourism boycott would be catastrophic." Shuddering at the prospect, the fishermen open another bottle of Pacifico. "But it will probably never happen. This country has so much. The United States hasn't even begun to exploit our potential. It can't stay away from her,pxso it will always solve its problems with Mexico."
He takes a long pull on the circulating refreshment. "Unless," he adds, winking, "we become the 51st star in the spangled banner."
That joke, half serious, is ubiquitous in Baja California Sur: The United States will forgive Mexico's awesome debt in exchange for the peninsula. This offends the sense of national pride that the government inculcates early on with textbooks that portray the U.S. role in Mexican history with more venom than most North Americans realize. Ever since 1853, when James Gadsden's purchase added southern New Mexico and Arizona to everything else Mexico lost in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, Mexico's constitutions have forbidden relinquishing sovereign territory. When American filibusterer William Walker invaded La Paz in 1853 and declared himself lord of the peninsula, undermanned but proud forces ran him off. But with today's pervasive North American presence in the hotels and luxury homes appearing along the shores, many just shrug, observing that, piece by piece, the United States is buying Baja California.
Two years ago, an alternate route along the Pacific side was added to the last 100 miles of the trans-peninsular highway. At one point an artesian spring surfaces, watering a coastal oasis known as Todos Santos. Mango, avocado and papaya orchards fill the seams between hills where a village perches, its houses made from woven and plastered \o7 palo de arco\f7 sticks.